Labour’s ‘modernisers’ are stuck in the past

Over the past few years I’ve researched and written extensively about the rise of nationalism, populism and movement politics. I’m embarrassed to say that I missed the potential rise of Jeremy Corbyn. In fairness, Jeremy Corbyn missed the potential rise of Jeremy Corbyn so I’m far from alone. Nonetheless, it’s happened and it needs a better explanation than ‘a bunch of lefties, union organisation and young people who know not what they do’.

Yet, this is basically the narrative of the ‘modernising’ wing of the Labour Party. Often it’s supplemented with attacks on the electoral system itself. If the best you’ve got to add to a debate is an attack on the rules of the game then it’s time to take a step back and give things further thought.

Essentially, the ‘modernisers’ have little to say other than ‘it will all go wrong then we’ll step in and save the day like we always do’. They said exactly the same thing about Ed Miliband’s leadership but when Labour lost it wasn’t to the ‘modernising’ wing of the party that the selectorate turned. It was to the left.

But the reason I failed to spot the Corbyn surge is the same reason that the ‘modernising’ offer is now so empty. Corbynism, like ‘modernisation’ is stuck in the past. The Corbyn agenda is a completely recognisable creed- it’s simple Milibandism plus. It’s a traditional social democratic package of tax, redistribute, buttress welfare, nationalise a couple of strategic industries with a bit of people’s QE sprinkled on top. Why would people looking for new and imaginative ideas in politics turn to that?

The answer lies in the fact that there were few other imaginative ideas on offer. That is the failure of the ‘modernisers’. Instead of rethinking the world in the context of huge tech disruption of traditional social institutions, inequality, financial risk and environmental threat, the ‘modernisers’ have become the conservatives of Labour politics. They exist to deny political choice rather than enhance it. In other words, the ‘modernisers’ are no such thing. Faced with two conservative forces, a quarter of a million people went for the seemingly more imaginative offer.

When faced with a new phenomenon, it’s tempting to cast around in history. The incorrect reading of Corbyn is that it is Militant Mark II. Militant was a sect, Corbynism is a movement of sorts- a micro-movement but a movement nonetheless. Its political economy is hard-edged social democracy rather than real socialism. Some have pointed to the George McGovern analogy which has some more merit. But the example I keep thinking of is actually Howard Dean in 2003/4.

Dean’s campaign threatened to break through against a complacent and uninspiring party elite. US primaries engage the public to a far greater extent than even the reformed Labour system. It was difficult for him to ultimately get the nomination but he shook things up.

Party elites responded to Dean’s success by carrying on as they had before at the next election. Having learned nothing they threw themselves behind the ‘inevitable’ candidate, Hillary Clinton (by the way, exactly the same process is happening in 2015/16). It was an even bigger disaster for them second time around. The reason, in part, was because another candidate had learned the lessons of Howard Dean.

Obama’s campaign understood the need to emotionally connect. He knew that the changes he offered had to be real. It helped that he had been vocally anti-Iraq War. The Dean networked campaign techniques were adopted and refined. But it was built around a progressive political platform. Rather than dismissing or explaining away the Dean phenomenon, Obama co-opted it.

I’m afraid the reaction of the ‘modernisers’ has been Clinton-esque. It is possible that is all they know. New Labour is touted as an eternal truth. But it isn’t. It was a contextual answer to particular times. It’s now the past. To coin a phrase: move on.

These times are distinguished by a growing sense of social unease. Technology presents an ever greater dynamic force that will change both economy and society. Politics is losing its form: it is safety first Conservatism versus a politics of imagination. There is little room for mild reformism. New generations thirst for something more creative whilst older generations desperately try to hold back the tide. Global society impinges on our national consciousness in new ways. New expressions of identity swirl whether they be about nation, class or gender. We have all found our voice. And these voices no longer fit into a solidaristic, hero-leader led, hierarchical political project.

Labour – left and moderates alike – is stuck in the past. The only lesson from Labour’s history worth taking is that it only advances when it is a party situated in the present and the future. Ironically, the spirit behind Corbynism is hinting at that again. But something else needs to emerge for that spirit to be taken forward. Corbyn might be Labour’s Dean. Its ‘modernisers’ are almost certainly its Hillarys.

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